Is education an opportunity or an entitlement?
Bonnie Newman recently paid a visit to White Mountains Community College in Berlin in her new role as the interim president of the state’s community college system. She’s an accomplished public official whose career spans more than three decades across the political spectrum.A Republican, she worked in Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s White House, led Judd Gregg’s congressional office and more recently, and briefly, she was John Lynch’s pick to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, until of course Gregg changed his mind and decided to fill out the rest of his term. Newman has also held top jobs at UNH and at the Business and Industry Association.We wonder why someone of Newman’s stature and experience would trouble herself with such a short-term job. The last state budget cut 20 percent from the state’s Community College system – the largest single year cut in the program’s history. “Do more with less” was the Legislature’s dictate – so now tuition has risen, programs have been cut and now it appears that enrollment is shrinking.As the cost of a traditional college or university experience becomes out of reach for many families, community colleges have filled a vital role, with enrollment doubling since 2000. But this isn’t all; with their open enrollment policy, they’ve also had to deal with the consequences of ineffective public schools and the democratizing of secondary education, both of which drop many ill-equipped students disproportionately on their doorstep. Nationally about one-third of all entering community college freshmen need at least one remedial course.Still, Newman rang an optimistic tone and challenged the current political system. She noted that so far in the Republican presidential primary, “there’s not a whole lot of talk about education.” It is time, she said, for a “public dialogue” to decide if “education is a public or private responsibility.”She is right. Education policy shifted dramatically over the last century – from being a rare opportunity to a basic entitlement. Before Truman’s GI Bill, which offered free college to returning veterans, college was exclusively for wealthy families. Later, amidst the Cold War, the Eisenhower National Defense Education Act poured unprecedented federal funds into educating and inspiring the nation’s top students. Education now has become even more accessible and no doubt more important, but it remains overburdened, complicated and distracted.Newman and the leadership of the White Mountains Community College offer hope, but direction must come from our leaders and ultimately the people themselves.Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a frequent contributor to New Hampshire Business Review.